Private Is As Private Does In The Age Of The Internet
The other day I attended, as a speaker, the 2010 Consumer Privacy Consultations of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. Yes, that’s a mouthful. That’s how you can tell that we take these things seriously in Canada. We have commissionary offices that hold public consultations.
In all seriousness, we do take these things seriously. Our Privacy Commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, has become something of a publicly recognizable figure in Canada for her consistent application of pressure to Facebook to be more rigorous about privacy protections. It has not been enough, for Jennifer Stoddart and the Privacy Commission, that Facebook simply just says that they’re not going to misuse user information, that they can be trusted, that they’re concerned keeping privacy interests: In Canada, we want evidence that they’re actually going to do this. And not just Facebook; marketers, government organizations, corporations ... any body, small or large, that collects information online or off, by any means, is expected to adhere to certain boundaries and baselines on citizen/consumer privacy. Canada is working very hard to figure out how to regulate and enforce that, and public consultations are one way that they're going about doing that.
Consumer privacy online was the topic of the public consultations this past week (the archived webcast can be found at the Privacy Commission Web site, here), and the panel that I sat on was concerned with children and online privacy. Other panel discussions addressed advertising and privacy, including the use of consumer information gleaned online by advertisers and marketers, and geospatial tracking and location-based applications (Foursquare, anyone?), which touched on many of the same issues and addressed similar concerns. At the centre of both discussions was the question of whether the very idea of privacy is being changed by our level of technological activity, such that we cease to even notice the erosion of our privacy, or disdain it entirely as an antiquated issue in the age of Twitter and Facebook and Foursquare and Words With Friends.
How do we even understand privacy in the age of the Internet? How can we preserve and protect our privacy when we face social pressure to be less private, to constantly disclose our location and our preferred Starbucks drink and our innermost secrets? When we're not even sure what privacy means anymore?
These concerns, of course, involve further levels of complication when children are involved, not least because –- as I and my fellow panelists pointed out repeatedly –- it’s doubtful that children, regardless of their level of sophistication, understand the full implications of eroded privacy. How do we educate children about the importance of protecting their privacy when they're exposed to a culture that doesn't seem to value it -- or even understand what protecting "privacy" actually means? (Is it not giving strangers your home address, is it being careful about which photos you post on Facebook, or is it being aware of the extent to which information on your consumer habits is being collected? All of the above?)
Relatedly –- as parents know well, and parents embedded in social media know even better -– there’s the thorny matter of figuring out how to protect our childrens’ privacy on their behalf and even how to protect their privacy from our own social-media-inspired (or social-media-pressured, as one speaker on an earlier panel suggested) impulses. And, too, there’s the whole knotty set of issues related to the online marketing and advertising that is directed to children and the surveillance of childrens’ online behavior that functions to serve marketing and advertising needs. Protecting and preserving our childrens’ privacy is a battle, it seems, that needs to be fought on many fronts.
We didn't, of course, come up with any answers. We were barely able to scratch the surface of outlining the problems and issues facing families concerned about online privacy. We agreed that education seemed to be key, but teaching social media literacy to children is a tricky enterprise, given that the landscape of social media and the technology upon/within which it operates changes constantly -- how do we teach social media literacy to children when so many adults struggle to attain and maintain that literacy? How do we encourage, among children, awareness of and sensitivity to privacy concerns in the arena of social media when we're not even sure what privacy is anymore?
This, of course, was part of my contribution to the discussion: How do parents understand privacy, and how do they -- can they -- best act as custodians of their children's privacy when they're often struggling to understand how to be custodians of their own privacy?
Those of us in social media know that discussions about these issues seem perpetually unresolvable: How mcuh do we share about our families online? How do we decided what to share and what not to share? How well do we understand the implications of sharing (what rights does Facebook have to photos of our children, anyway?); how well do we appreciate the permanence of information shared on the Internet? How aware are we of what Danah Boyd calls the "invisible audiences" that consume our information -- and by extension, information about our children? One audience member tweeted, during our panel, that he felt that mommy bloggers posting stories about their children put them at risk -- this is an old complaint, of course, and one that posits the extreme view. (And, I would argue, a sexist and technologically biased one -- how often are literary memoirists criticized for putting their families at risk by writing about them? Does Dave Barry get accused of exploiting his family?) But it speaks to a larger and more valid question -- how do parent bloggers navigate concerns about privacy in a sphere that so values confession (in which, I would argue and have argued, some amount of confession is necessary to the full flourishing of open discourse about motherhood and parenting)? How aware are we of our "invisible audiences" and of our future audiences (what goes on the Internet stays on the Internet) and of our children's role in all of this? How do we protect them while still maintaining the open dialogue that makes mommy blogging, as Alice Bradley once said, a radical act?
These, of course, are questions that I struggle with every time that I write a blog post or upload a video or tweet an anecdote about my kids, and even after four years -- ! -- of struggling with them, I still don't have the answers. But that just underscores how challenging these issues are to address -- and how challenging they'll remain. Online discussions of these issues help, of course -- as does our government's taking an interest in how to support such discussion and how to address the issues coming out of such discussions.
But we also need to be willing to keep up the discussion offline, in our homes and workplaces and schools and with our partners and children and peers. Because privacy doesn't begin and end on Facebook or on Twitter or in whatever preschooler-friendly online gaming platform is being pitched as the next best alternative to Baby Einstein. It touches -- or should touch -- the whole of our lives, and our children's lives. Something to think about.